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The world needs American vaccines, not bombs.
And it would only cost us $25 Billion to vaccinate the world—3.5% as much as our military.
The American Rescue Plan has the potential to be a game-changer for US domestic policy, as I wrote in Sunday’s Incision. But where the Biden-Harris Administration has risen to the occasion on the homefront, it has failed its obligation to the world.
Though it took the administration only 37 days to bomb the Middle East, it has been hesitant, at best, to put its shoulder into providing vaccinations abroad. Yet estimates suggest that it would cost the United States government a mere $25 Billion to mass manufacture enough vaccines for the entire world. That’s just 1.3% of the overall cost of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue plan.
President Biden can and should correct this immediately.
Biden wants to be FDR—but he’s shaping up as more of an LBJ.
Only a week before the November election, Biden campaigned in a small, secluded hideaway in Georgia called Warm Springs. He didn’t go there for the votes—that County went for Trump by more than 20 points. He was chasing the echoes of history: Warm Springs is where a young Franklin D. Roosevelt recuperated following his paralysis from polio. Biden sought to wrap himself in the healing of that place and the resonance of that would-be President. After all, FDR would go on to ignite the most productive period of government problem-solving in American history.
But Biden’s historic equivalent isn’t quite FDR, but rather another 20th century President with a commitment to civic justice: Lyndon B. Johnson.
Both were creatures of the Senate and had been some of its youngest members. Before their time in the Oval, both were older, more experienced, often-mocked number twos to younger, more charismatic, once-in-a-generation Presidents. Both had aspirations to invest in the American middle class and end poverty. LBJ’s Great Society launched canonical programs like Head Start and Medicare. Biden’s American Rescue Plan has the potential to end a 40-year Reaganist governing consensus through game-changing childhood tax credits.
And yet LBJ’s achievements at home will always be overshadowed by his failure abroad. The burgeoning Vietnam War kicked off an era of American foreign policy that, in large part, persists today: we continue to wrap our short-term bullying adventurism abroad in the cloaks of “American values” and “democracy” to mass produce weapons that benefit American corporate manufacturers. We’ve been fully captured by the very military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned of just a few years before LBJ took office:
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
Under Biden, US Foreign policy seems to simply follow in that broken path of militarism and intimidation. After all, little more than a month into the new administration, it dropped bombs in the Middle East—picking up on the well-worn tradition of American presidents.
In his newsletter, Peter Beinart smartly extended the Biden-LBJ comparison to the realm of foreign policy:
Johnson’s advisors—men like McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Robert McNamara—were not crude ideological extremists. They were not the 1960s equivalent of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo or Michael Flynn. They were highly credentialed centrists bound by a bipartisan, largely uncontroversial, cold war mindset. And in the critical early years of Johnson’s presidency, progressives lacked the power to make them, or Johnson himself, reconsider assumptions that ultimately led to disaster. Today, progressives lack the power to make Biden’s highly credentialed centrists reconsider their hawkish assumptions as well.
But there’s still time for President Biden to pivot. The global COVID-19 pandemic offers his administration a unique opportunity to provide the world a resource that the United States can uniquely furnish. Rather than exporting bombs to the rest of the world, Joe Biden has an opportunity to export vaccines.
Current global vaccine efforts are inadequate—which could perpetuate the pandemic.
The leading (if limited) global vaccine effort is COVAX, a World Health Organization-led effort supported through the Bill and Melinda Gates-funded organization GAVI. As of right now, COVAX plans to vaccinate two billion people worldwide. An additional billion doses has been committed to by the Quad Summit, including Japan, India, Australia, and the US. If you’re doing the math, COVAX and the Quad Summit effort will collectively cover a mere 3 of the 7.7 billion people in the world—less than two out of every five people in the world.
Collectively, the Biden-Harris Administration has pledged a paltry $4 billion to COVAX as well as additional support for the Quad Summit effort. But the administration has yet to announce any effort to directly export vaccines—despite the fact that millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has yet to be approved for use in the US, are sitting here untouched.
“We’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but we’re then going to try and help the rest of the world,” President Biden said last week. Note: “America” and “first” sound eerily familiar.
Stockpiling vaccines while the world competes for doses is a moral failure, but this approach could also end up backfiring on Americans. Right now, Brazil is reeling under the weight of its worst COVID surge yet as the P.1 variant rampages. It first emerged in Manaus, Brazil after 76% of the population in that city had already been infected with the common variant. P.1 seems to have fully evaded the natural immunity that develops among people who’ve already been infected. Though none of the known variants seem to have fully evaded vaccine-mediated immunity (yet), every single unvaccinated person worldwide presents the potential for that to happen, potentially rendering our vaccines useless.
The longer we fail to vaccinate billions of people abroad, the more this administration tempts fate. As Zain Rizvi, a Law and Policy Researcher at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and its resident pharmaceutical policy expert told me, “Vaccinating the world can help protect Americans from the risk of new variants, prevent trillions of dollars of damage to the global economy, and save countless lives.”
Vaccinating the world would only cost $25 Billion.
An analysis by Public Citizen estimated that it would cost the United States a mere $25 Billion to mass manufacture enough vaccines for the world’s lower and middle-income countries. Manufacturing could start in as little as six months, and would accelerate vaccination by several years.
The plan would empower BARDA (the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) to retrofit and expand existing manufacturing facilities in the US and around the world to produce the Moderna vaccine—a vaccine whose research and development was financed and supported by the US government through the National Institutes of Health. The plan would drop the price of the Moderna vaccine to less than $3 per dose—and Moderna would still earn an additional 4% royalty rate per vaccine. As Rizvi put it: “The U.S. government is the single largest funder of coronavirus research and development in the world. American taxpayers have bankrolled the development of leading vaccines and should have a say in how they are priced and supplied.”
Relative to the $5 Trillion the US has already spent on COVID relief, $25 billion is chump change. It’s only 1.3% of the latest $1.9 Trillion American Rescue Plan, and less than half a percent of federal COVID relief spending to date.
Perhaps more poignantly, that $25 billion to immunize everyone against COVID-19 is only 3.5% of the United States 2021 military budget. For a fraction of what we spend on the capacity to drop bombs on other countries, we could drop vaccines instead.
FDR or LBJ?
Roosevelt’s New Deal was meant to end the Great Depression, but it also primed America’s involvement in World War II—the last time the US fought a truly just war. In that respect, FDR saved America and then led America to save the world.
That’s exactly what LBJ failed to do. He thought he could compartmentalize domestic and foreign policy, taking on poverty at home while exporting poverty-inducing war abroad. Ultimately, his failure abroad engulfed—and ultimately curtailed—his success at home. Biden must learn the lesson sitting in the contrast between both Presidents: rescuing the world is rescuing America. They are, in fact, one in the same.
As big as the $1.9 Trillion COVID relief package was, it had a glaring $25 Billion dollar hole. For literally 1.3% of the value of the law, President Biden could have vaccinated the whole world. That’s worth doing on its own merits. But even still, vaccinating all 7.8 billion people in the world is critical to defending the 330 million people in the US. And it’s way cheaper than the $700 Billion we spend every year on “Defense.”